‘A huge moment.’ Churchill, Triple Crown tracks, plus Keeneland move to ban race-day drug

Churchill Downs, home of racing’s biggest day, the Kentucky Derby, announced on Thursday that it and other Triple Crown racetracks would begin phasing out the use of a controversial race-day medication, beginning next year.

Lasix use will be eliminated in all stakes races at the racetracks beginning in 2021, according to the announcement.

The coalition includes tracks owned by Churchill Downs Inc., The Stronach Group, the New York Racing Association and others, including Keeneland, Del Mar, Lone Star Park and Remington Park, Los Alamitos Racecourse, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs.

Together, these tracks represent 86 percent of the graded or listed U.S. stakes races this year, according to the coalition.

The coalition said it would work “diligently with their respective horsemen’s associations and racing commissions toward implementing this effort,” according to the release.

The use of Lasix, or furosemide, has become controversial in Thoroughbred racing with many arguing that it amounts to a performance-enhancing drug, if only for its potent diuretic effects. Others argue it is a necessary anti-bleeder medication. However, it isn’t allowed in most racing jurisdictions outside the United States.

Every Kentucky Derby horse, including eventual Triple Crown winner Justify, was on Lasix last year, according to the Churchill race-day program . Only two horses in the 14-race Derby Day card were not on Lasix, according to the program.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2-year-old horses will not be allowed to be treated with Lasix within 24 hours of a race, and in 2021, the prohibition would extend to all horses in stakes races at the tracks.

That means in 2021, the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont will be run Lasix-free for the first time in decades, if the coalition’s “house rules” remain in effect.

The Breeders’ Cup and other racing organizations voiced support for the new policy, which has been one of the main goals of many in the horse industry as well as animal activist organizations for years.

“This is a huge moment that signals a collective move to evolve this legacy sport,” said Belinda Stronach, chair and president of The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, where 23 horses have died in fatal breakdowns this year, as well as Pimlico, where the Preakness will be run.

Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Inc., said the new rule “is a significant and meaningful step to further harmonize American racing with international standards.”

Keeneland, which attempted to implement Lasix-free races in 2016, also praised the shift as “an essential step as we look toward the long-term sustainability of U.S.-breds on the national and international stage,” said Bill Thomason, track president.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, called the news historic.

“As co-chairman of the Congressional Horse Caucus and as a long-standing advocate for medication uniformity and integrity in horse racing, I applaud the coalition of Thoroughbred racing associations and organizations who today announced the phasing out of the use of Lasix within 24 hours of all stakes races,” Barr said in a statement. “This historic announcement aligns with legislation I introduced with my colleague, Paul Tonko (D-NY), which would establish a non-governmental anti-doping authority charged with the responsibility of implementing and enforcing a national uniform medication program with input from industry stakeholders. The announcement also signals the industry’s willingness to begin harmonizing its rules with international standards. I look forward to working with this coalition to continue our efforts to reinforce the public’s confidence in the safety and integrity of the sport.”

However, trainers, who have opposed moves over the last decade to ban Lasix, were less enthusiastic. Eric Hamelback, CEO of the national Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, told the Thoroughbred Daily News that his group had not been consulted and favors continued Lasix use under veterinary recommendation.

“I do have a strong opinion about not caving to public pressure just because someone clamors or uses an incorrect semantic that Lasix is ‘dope,’” Hamelback told TDN. “And I don’t think our industry should cave to public pressure from those outside the industry on something that they’re not involved with and may not have as much working knowledge of as those of us in the industry have.”

Others questioned if the change went far enough. PETA issued a statement urging tracks to ban Lasix for all races, not just some.

Meanwhile, Churchill Downs announced several changes designed to make the Kentucky Derby and other Louisville races safer, including building an $8 million equine medical center on the track grounds, plus a call to cut in half the maximum dosage of Lasix in everday use.

“Churchill Downs will advocate in the strongest possible terms with Kentucky regulators and the regulators of other U.S. racing jurisdictions to achieve this result and it is our intention to run the 2021 Kentucky Derby without the permitted use of Lasix,” the track said.

Other safety measures involved new rules on crops and jockey concussions. The track also plans to add more surveillance cameras.